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Racial Capitalism

A DEFINITION:
racial capitalism: A term coined by Cedric Robinson referring to a modern world system “dependent on slavery, violence, imperialism, and genocide. Capitalism was ‘racial’ not because of some conspiracy to divide workers or justify slavery and dispossession, but because racialism had already permeated Western feudal society.” (source)

CONTEXT & HISTORY:
Capitalism is an economic and political system in which private, for-profit companies have control over a country’s trade and industry, rather than workers or the government. For decades, anti-racist activists and scholars have argued that capitalism and racism are closely intertwined, while some activists have denounced capitalist structures’ tendency to value economic resources or productivity over people. In 1983, a university professor named Cedric J. Robinson coined the term “racial capitalism” primarily to describe the process by which white people and institutions derive social and economic value from people of color. As critical race theorist Cheryl Harris wrote, the fact that the United States was built on the “hyper-exploitation of Black labor” and the “conquest, removal, and extermination of Native American life and culture” was a key example of how capitalism was weaponized against Black and Indigenous people (A Glossary Of Anti-Racism Terms All Activists & Allies Should Know by Madhuri Sathish).

Building on the work of another forgotten black radical intellectual, sociologist Oliver Cox, Robinson challenged the Marxist idea that capitalism was a revolutionary negation of feudalism. Instead capitalism emerged within the feudal order and flowered in the cultural soil of a Western civilization already thoroughly infused with racialism. Capitalism and racism, in other words, did not break from the old order but rather evolved from it to produce a modern world system of “racial capitalism” dependent on slavery, violence, imperialism, and genocide. Capitalism was “racial” not because of some conspiracy to divide workers or justify slavery and dispossession, but because racialism had already permeated Western feudal society. (What Did Cedric Robinson Mean by Racial Capitalism? by Robin D. G. Kelley)

MEDIA LINKS:
Geographies of Racial Capitalism with Ruth Wilson Gilmore (16-minute video)

What is Racial Capitalism and Why Does it Matter with Robin D. G. Kelley (1hr 26-minute video)

AirGo interview with Robin D. G. Kelley (1hr 18-minute listen, racial capitalism mainly addressed from 19:00-28:00)

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